It's not exactly a building boom, but several public libraries around the country are getting makeovers. The Central Library in Austin, Texas just broke ground on a new building that promises such new features as outdoor reading porches and a cafe. In Madison, Wis., they're about to open a newly remodeled library that has, among other improvements, more natural light and a new auditorium. Historic libraries in Boston and New York City are looking at significant renovations.
When you say the words "libraries" and "future" together, the first question a lot of people have is: Will there still be books? According to most librarians interviewed for this story, the answer is a firm "yes." But they also say that housing books will be less of a priority. Take the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., which is in the midst of a $100 million remodeling. On the main floor, there used to be thousands of books and periodicals in the "Science, Business and Technology" section. Today, it's called the "Digital Commons," and there's hardly a scrap of paper to be found.
Looking very much like an Apple store, there's a digital bar displaying the latest portable electronic devices (nooks, slates, tablets, minis, etc.) There are rows and rows of desktop computers. There are "creative stations" that have pricey software like the Adobe CS6. "People who can't afford that software now have an opportunity to do so," says Nicholas Kerelchuk, manager of the Digital Commons.
Even on that rare event in Washington, D.C. — a beautiful Saturday morning in August — every seat inside the Digital Commons was taken. There were people waiting to attend a demonstration of what Kerelchuk calls the library's "rock star": A 3D printer that's about the size of a movie theater popcorn popper. The machine will create just about any kind of object you design, from a miniature bust of President George Washington to a cookie cutter shaped like a dinosaur.
Carolyn Hatton — a veterinarian who attended the demonstration — says she was there because the 3D printer could revolutionize the medical field. It's already being used to create artificial body parts. "I think it's got enormous purposes for it that we haven't even imagined," says Hatton.
That kind of visionary thinking is exactly what many public libraries around the U.S. want to happen in their new spaces. Even though 3D printers cost about $4,000, a growing number of public libraries are making the investment.
The MLK Jr. Library has also created a "Dream Lab." The large space is pretty nondescript but, with all of the technology at your fingertips, the training they offer, the self-publishing opportunities, Kerelchuk is confident they will turn the library into a place where content is not just consumed but created. "We're giving the opportunity to entrepreneurs and tech start-ups and non-profits to come in and really start scaling their venture, their idea. So we're really changing the idea of what a library is capable of and what we have to offer," he says. Plus, it's all free with a library card.
So why might this idea of an extremely well-equipped, maker space be the library of the future? Ginnie Cooper, D.C.'s chief librarian, believes it's a smart expansion of something libraries have done for years.
"Everything in libraries that we talk about as new today has its roots at some other time," says Cooper. "For example, I know writers who wrote their books at the library. I know people who started their business at the library. And what we realized was, if we were going to serve today's people building economic value in their communities and being creative, we had to think about the world differently," she says.
And since librarians around the country are doing this "thinking," chances are their vision for the future is well-informed.
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Several public libraries around the country are getting makeovers. The central library in Austin, Texas just broke ground on a new building that will feature outdoor reading porches. Sounds nice. Madison, Wisconsin's newly remodeled library will have more light and auditorium, and the Boston and New York libraries are considering big renovations.
For the past month, we've been taking a close look at public libraries. Today, for the final story in our series, NPR's Elizabeth Blair looks ahead.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: When you say the words libraries and future together, the first thought for a lot of people is, will there still be books? According to most librarians I spoke with, the answer is a firm yes. But they also say housing books will be less of a priority. Take the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington, D.C., which is in the midst of a $100 million remodeling.
On the main floor, there used to be thousands of books and periodicals in the science, business and technology section. Today, there's hardly a scrap of paper to be found. One part looks like an Apple store, but with a lot more than just Apple products.
NICHOLAS KERELCHUK: So we have our Windows 8 slate, we have our iPad mini, we have the Google Nexus 7, we have a Barnes and Nobel Nook HD tablet.
BLAIR: Nicholas Kerelchuk is the manager of the library's new Digital Commons. Behind the display of sophisticated portable devices, there are rows and rows of desktop computers.
KERELCHUK: And then we have on the backside we have our creative stations and our creative stations are the ones with the Adobe CS6 on it. And so people who come in and can't afford that software and want to learn about that software have an opportunity to do so.
BLAIR: Even on a beautiful Saturday morning in August, every seat is taken. There were also people waiting to attend a demonstration of what Kerelchuk says is the library's rock star, a 3D printer, a machine that's about the size of a movie theater popcorn popper that will create just about any kind of object you design.
JAMES KITE: That's a cookie cutter that's shaped like a dinosaur.
BLAIR: Library associate, James Kite, also shows the group a miniature Washington Monument and a bolt, both made of plastic with the 3D printer.
KITE: We're designing surfaces and then filling them in...
BLAIR: It's an expensive machine, about $4,000, but a growing number of public libraries in the United States are making the investment. Carolyn Hatton, a veterinarian who attended the demonstration, says the 3D printer could revolutionize the medical field. It's already being used to create artificial body parts.
CAROLYN HATTON: I think it's got enormous purposes for it that we haven't yet even imagined.
BLAIR: Visionary thinking. That's exactly what the folks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library want to happen in this new digital commons.
KERELCHUK: In here we're standing in the dream lab.
BLAIR: Nicholas Kerelchuk gets very excited about the Dream Lab. You might imagine a Dream Lab would have lots of color and maybe some space age furniture. Well, not the one at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in D.C. It's pretty nondescript. But between the large space, all of the technology at your fingertips, the training they offer, Nicholas Kerelchuk is confident they will turn the library into a place where content is not just consumed, but created.
KERELCHUK: So we're giving the opportunity to entrepreneurs and tech startups and non-profits to come in and really start scaling their venture, their idea, and so we're really changing the idea of what a library's capable of and what we have to offer.
BLAIR: Call it an extremely well equipped, free micro space. But why might that be the library of the future? Jenny Cooper is D.C.'s chief librarian.
GINNY COOPER: Everything in libraries that we talk about as new today actually had its roots at some other time. So, for example, I know what writers who wrote their book at the library. I know people who started their business at the library. And what we realized was if we were still going to be serving those people, today's people, building an economic value in their community, doing their own creativity, their own artistic work, we had to think about the world differently.
BLAIR: And since these are librarians doing the thinking, chances are their visions of the future well informed. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.